Sunday, November 29, 2020

Tongues of Serpents

Tongues of Serpents
by Naomi Novik
Recommended Ages: 13+

It's the year 1809, and Napoleon's invasion of England has been repelled. You don't remember when Napoleon invaded England? Well, you wouldn't, if you don't live in the version of our world where dragons play a role in modern history. It was an, ahem, revolutionary strategy involving dragons that put the French on English soil, and it was a forward-thinking young dragon named Temeraire and his human companion, Will Laurence, who turned the tide and sent them packing again. But that's all another story; you can read about it in Victory of Eagles. Now, however, Laurence's death sentence for treason – didn't I tell you about that? Never mind; you can read about it in Empire of Ivory – has been commuted to transportation. Which is to say, exile (and a term of hard labor) to the New South Wales colony. Which is to say, Australia.

In lieu of hard labor, Temeraire and Laurence are meant to chaperone a clutch of dragon eggs to the remote outpost of Sydney, joined by some mildly disgraced aviators still in the service of His Majesty's Aerial Corps, where upon the eggs' hatching they can start a new covert of dragons to support the country's interests on that side of the world. Bad luck, that Rankin fellow (from His Majesty's Dragon) is back, angling for another dragon to mismanage, and Laurence not only has to be reconciled with him after – well, you've read the series this far, haven't you? No? Do it! – anyway, after my favorite scene in the first book of the series, but he has to put up with Rankin being in command of the squadron while Laurence isn't even an officer. They arrive at Sydney just in time to learn that the governor (the same Bligh who was put over the side of the Bounty in that ship's famous mutiny) has been put over the side of the continent by another mutiny. This actually happened in history, by the way. But what the history books won't tell you is that Bligh's insistence that the dragons must be used to put him back in power, while the leaders of the mutiny expect the same sort of help on their side, drives the aviators off on a survey of the continent's wild interior.

It starts as just a hunt for a well watered pass through the mountains and, maybe, the trail of some smugglers who are wreaking havoc on English shipping. Then it turns into a chase across a wilderness full of fantastic dangers, always behind and never quite in sight of the natives who stole one of the eggs in their care. Each of the eggs hatches sometime during the adventure, introducing three more characters to the remarkably varied cast, all connected by lines of conflict and sympathy that promise to pay off with many interesting stories to come. They also experience devastating forces of nature, encounters with not one but two types of monsters that could bedevil a world in which dragons are on the side of the angels, terrific battles and challenges to their survival – filling in another corner of the canvas in a panoramic picture of a world in which humans and dragons live together.

This is the sixth of nine Temeraire novels, coming on the heels of Victory of Eagles and followed, in publication order, by Crucible of Gold, Blood of Tyrants and League of Dragons. This far in, I'm still enjoying myself immensely. My breath caught at the beauty of some of Naomi Novik's scenic description, sympathy with the emotions of her characters and, of course, the thrills of the action-packed bits. Even the long trek through the desolate Outback is livened by the curious characters of Caesar, a dragon who deserves to be saddled with Rankin if any does, and Kulingile, a runty hatchling who is only just saved from being knocked on the head and who turns out, by and by, to have big things in store for him (ha ha). There are political intrigues, exotic cultures, clashes of worldviews (seen, for example, when Temeraire takes over as the point-of-view character) and uncanny puzzles, but underlying all as a foundation for our enjoyment, the deeply devoted bond between Laurence and Temeraire, which draws us in and makes us care about everything that happens to them. See, I'm not speaking for myself. I'm speaking for you, too. Why haven't you read this series yet? Hop to it!

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